Wall Street’s main lobbying arm has hired a top Supreme Court litigator to study a possible legal battle against a bank tax proposed by the Obama administration, on the theory that it would be unconstitutional, according to three industry officials briefed on the matter, Eric Dash writes in The New York Times.
In an e-mail message sent last week to the heads of Wall Street legal departments, executives of the lobbying group, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, wrote that a bank tax might be unconstitutional because it would unfairly single out and penalize big banks, according to these officials, who did not want to be identified to preserve relationships with the group’s members.
The message said the association had hired Carter G. Phillips of Sidley Austin, who has argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court, to study whether a tax on one industry could be considered arbitrary and punitive, providing the basis for a constitutional challenge, they said.
A spokesman for the lobbying group, Andrew DeSouza, confirmed on Sunday that Mr. Phillips was working with the group on a series of regulatory and legislative matters, including the tax. But because no formal tax legislation has been proposed by Congress, Mr. DeSouza said it was “premature to speculate on any potential actions beyond opposing the proposal itself as both punitive and counterproductive to increasing lending.”
Privately, executives at several large banks said they believed a legal battle was doomed to fail in Washington and risked escalating public rage over the bailouts of the banks. These executives say the industry may be better off pushing for a watered-down version of the tax. Most banks are just beginning to consider how, or whether, they would oppose it.
This political tug of war is centered on Wall Street bonuses, which have already returned to precrisis levels. The banks have tried to head off criticism by starting new charitable programs and by structuring executive bonuses in line with principles set by the federal pay adviser, like paying bonuses mostly in stock instead of cash and deferring the payout of some bonus money in case business declines again.
Administration officials hoped their proposed bank tax would serve much the same purpose. Democratic leaders in Congress have welcomed the plan, which could raise up to $117 billion to recoup projected losses from the bank bailout program.
Republicans have remained unusually silent on the tax, hoping to avoid a choice between supporting a tax increase and defending big bankers. Meanwhile, some liberal Democrats have gone further than the administration has, proposing a heavy tax on bank bonuses. Political analysts expect the bank tax to pass easily in the House but face resistance in the Senate.
There may be room for compromise. Administration officials hope to keep the proposed tax limited to major financial institutions with more than $50 billion in assets but consider that a difficult line to draw. For example, the proposed tax would not apply to large hedge funds; the mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; or the carmakers Chrysler and General Motors.
“We believe the lines we have drawn are sound and sensible,” said Gene B. Sperling, a senior Treasury Department official. “We understand these are the type of things we will need to keep an open mind on in negotiations with Congress.”
The group has hired him before. Last spring, it retained Mr. Phillips to examine similar legal questions after lawmakers prepared to heavily tax Wall Street bonuses in response to the public’s outrage over bonuses for A.I.G. traders. Through an extensive phone campaign and relentless lobbying on Capitol Hill, the financial lobby successfully beat back the legislation without using the courts.
Mr. Phillips’s primary argument, however, might be that a tax so narrowly focused would penalize a specific group. Legal scholars say the Supreme Court has overturned only a handful of laws on those grounds, and those were typically rules that singled out political outcasts like former members of the Confederacy or people accused of being communists.
Officials of the lobbying group suggest that a bank tax would be punitive because it would seek to recoup bailout losses from companies that have already paid back their money — with warrants and interest.
Outside legal scholars agree. “It seems to me that it is not even a close question,” said Laurence H. Tribe, a constitutional law professor at Harvard who was a legal adviser to the Obama campaign. Mr. Tribe contends that imposing a fee or requirement to return a sum of money cannot be construed as a punishment. Even more important, the administration’s proposal lays out a clear set of criteria, not a list of individual culprits, Mr. Tribe said.